Alice Darkness Light Darkness (Neco z Alenky, the Czech title) is apparently considered a fundamental film in the absurdist school and I cannot argue with it. It uses Alice in Wonderland as its structure; Lewis Carroll’s most famous novel is absurd in itself, so it is no difficult feat to find ample room for even more absurd interpretations.
Before I go into the review proper I have a trope I and friends of mine in graduate school used to describe something as silly-absurd or totally pretentious: Oh how I love expressionist puppet theater. One of our number heard this at one event or another; what had us so confounded that we used this statement is that there is one, let alone more, expressionist puppet plays at all. Alice Darkness is expressionist puppet theater. Still, despite our statement, it does warrant more than a little consideration.
The plot is simple. Alice follows a stuffed rabbit, the March Hare (or the white rabbit as she calls him) through a bureau drawer into a grimy Wonderland. As you would imagine, she uses the eat to grow, drink to shrink to get farther into the rather gross other world. She runs into the caterpillar, the mad hatter, the dormouse, and the whole Queen of Hearts business. With very rare exception, the story stays within the bounds of Lewis Carroll’s tale.
How the director Jan Švankmajer made the movie is why anyone should watch it. There are two aspects I will cover below because I think they present at least moderately significant problems.
Alice (Kristyna Kohoutova) is the only “actor” (Camilla Power is the narrator) in the movie that is about 90% stop motion animation. The March Hare is a toy rabbit stuffed with wood shavings. Instead of being friendly, he is manic looking with severe eyes and what appear to be real teeth. He is constant late which he verifies by pulling the clock from the gaping hole in his stomach. Alice follows him always one obstacle behind him. The only line she says apart form the narration (until the end) is “Sir, wait for me please.”
What Alice chases and what she runs into are the fabulous. The “special effects” are extremely careful stop motion photography. There is just enough jumpiness in the animation that makes it obvious in a sort of Brechtian way—to make you know you are watching a film. I say this because, given the care, it is very possible for Mr. Svankmajer to make the animation as smooth as standard live action.
Some of the animation is amazing, some horrifying. At one point Alice comes through a desk drawer (this is the common mode of changing locations throughout the film) and into a leaf covered room. The leaves then revert into the desk drawer—I love moving water and the only thing I could come up with is that it looked like a waterfall being pulled up from the target pool back to its origin.
The horrifying revolves around the coachman and the horses. They are animal skulls dressed in livery. Where the Hare is manic and menacing, these characters are truly frightening. They also make up most of the jury during Alice’s “trial” before the Queen of Hearts. By the time you get this far, the animation for the cards is clever, but does not require the same level of attention as the animation preceding it.
This leads nicely to the two facets I think that can cause problems. First is the most annoying. The narration is jarring. The trope of having just the lips and teeth appear on the screen for parts of the narration is disconcerting because of the suddenness; further, the mouth is not speaking English which is bothersome—given the few words, there is no reason at all why it couldn’t remain Czech. The worst part, though is the pronunciation. Each word is overdone/over-pronounce: “saiD the whiTTe rab-biTT.” It got to the point where I considered muting the film since I already know it.
The second facet is something that may not be a drawback, but was a bit of an issue for me. The film was completed in 1988. This means it began filming at least a couple of years before. The Berlin Wall didn’t come down until November 1989 and the Czech/Slovakia so called velvet revolution didn’t occur until January 1, 1991. Therefore, this leads to the possibility of trying to interpret the film against the backdrop of communist control. I know a fair amount of Czechoslovakian history and could see some of the grime and stark nature of the film as being a leitmotif, but I couldn’t see anything else that I could point to as metaphor for something. I think going down this path is a poor choice.
This version of Alice is absurd for the sake of being absurd. I fully believe it was made for the fun of making it. I believe it should be seen with the same thing in mind. It is difficult to recommend it highly because the artistically absurd is not something generally accepted; nevertheless, I do recommend it.
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